The Lay of the Nibelungs

It is challenging to define Ukemi recordings – even for me, and I choose them. There is the overarching terminology of ‘Classics, non-fiction and fiction’ but as these four new releases show, the spread is so wide as to be almost unhelpful! So, I will take them one by one, and hope that you are intrigued and even delighted with them – as I have been over the past three or four months of the preparation and recording behind the scenes.

I can’t quite recall the first time I saw Wagner’s Ring. Many years ago anyway. I do remember that when I announced to the open-plan editorial office of the newspaper I worked for that I was getting married and ‘my mother was buying us the ring’, I was met with silence…and I had to explain it wasn’t the band of gold but the big box of LPs which comprised Solti’s classic recording! Yet despite the work being in my blood for decades, I had never, until earlier this year (!) read the Nibelunglied. Frankly I wasn’t aware that actually Wagner used the (Scandinavian) Volsung Saga more than the 13th century German poem as the basis for his extraordinary cycle. However, prompted by an email received from an Ukemi listener, I looked into it – and realised very quickly what I had been missing all these years. Here was a story, in rhymed verse (yes, in the original Middle High German) which was High Drama – a tale with many of the characters familiar to all of us: Sigmund, Siegfried, Brunhillda, Gunther, Hagen albeit with just a touch of the magic (the Tarnhelm, the magic cloak which make the wearer invisible). Love, passion, ambition, jealousy, hate, vengeance are all here in abundance as the story unfolds, ending in a cataclysmic event. Though not quite a Götterdämmerung. The involvement and medium of the Gods, which underpins Wagner’s epic, does not have a role in the Nibelunglied, for it is very much a story of human proportions – but it is no less powerful for that. I chose to record not a contemporary prose version but the classic translation by Alice Horton  – which retained, with amazing technical deftness, the original metre and rhyming couplets – and played a considerable part in driving the narrative to its conclusion. The recording of The Lay of the Nibelungs, in the experienced hands of David Rintoul, left me breathless. (My note to David at the start of the sessions was (I had just been watching Formula 1): ‘The metre is the motor and the couplets is the chicane.’ He thanked me for that (a touch drily??) and I pressed RECORD!

Here is the opening in the original medieval German

Uns ist in alten mæren || wunders vil geseit

von helden lobebæren,|| von grôzer arebeit,

von fröuden, hôchgezîten, || von weinen und von klagen,

von küener recken strîten || muget ir nu wunder hœren sagen.

  1. TO us, in olden legends, is many a marvel told

Of praise-deserving heroes, of labours manifold,

Of weeping and of wailing, of joy and festival;

Of bold knights’ battling shall you now hear a wondrous tale.

Incidentally, I have revised Horton’s translation slightly, just to make it a bit easier on 21st century ears – without the ‘thee’s’ and thou’s and ‘shalt’s’ and ’seemeth’s’. It was, I hope, done with a very light touch, and with considerable respect to Ms Horton whose scholarly invention (often with a smile) is even now highly regarded!!!

Mengzi – With Selections from Traditional Commentaries

Professor Bryan W. Van Norden is, currently, Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple Visiting Professor at Yale-NUS College in Singapore – along with a number of other academic posts in the US and China. He flew to London and, for Ukemi, recorded one of his most significant books (published by Hackett Classics), the translations of the writings of Mengzi (Mencius), the 4th century BCE philosopher, titled ‘Second Sage – in other words, second only to Confucius in reputation. The key character of Van Norden’s book is that he supports the words and wisdom of Mengzi (pronounced Mung-za) some of the important commentaries (Commentary is a central Eastern tradition in philosophy and religion) down the ages. But underlying his work (among which is ‘Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy’ which Ukemi hopes to record next year) is his intention to correct the ‘Eurocentric’ teaching of world philosophy in the West, which he regards as stuffed with views that are insular and nationalistic. He hopes his work ‘issues a ringing call to make our educational institutions live up to their cosmopolitan ideals!’ He continues” ‘Any philosophy department that fails to teach non-Western philosophy would be renamed a “Department of European and American philosophy.”’ Not a philosophy department. Despite his fervent expression, Professor Van Norden is a charming, genial personality with a bow tie, who, really does wear his knowledge lightly. Though this was his first audiobook, we settled easily into the RNIB studio in Camden Town, London, and, for two and a half days, he communicated his love of his subject, both philosophy and history – and his fluency with Classical Chinese.  He explains that among many things, Mengzi documents, often with stories, why ‘people fail to be virtuous, what distinguishes genuine virtue from its semblances, and a political philosophy of “benevolent government” that has contemporary relevance.’ By the way, he is a poker player and has played in the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas.

The Annals by Tacitus

The Annals needs little introduction. One of the most important classics of Roman history, Tacitus (56-120 CE) tells the story of Rome from Emperor Augustus through the ‘weak’ Claudius with his ‘infamous’ wives Messalina and Agrippina) through to the ‘malignant evil’ of Nero. It is a story that, famously, doesn’t pull punches making it one of the most gripping accounts of the machinations at the heart of empire.

Discourse on Metaphysics and other principal essays.

Finally, a collection of principal essays of the 17th century Germany philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716). One of the most brilliant minds of his times, his purview was wide, covering mathematics, philosophy, science and politics. He corresponded with many major figures, often using this interchange as a springboard to further to his thoughts and insights. Here is Discourse on Metaphysics, the Monadology, and others, from Thoughts on Knowledge, Truth and Ideas (1684) to The Principles of Nature and of Grace’ (1714). Leibniz was clearly a forthright and uncompromising personality and while his genius was acknowledged, his contemporaries often found him hard to take. When his sponsor George of Hanover moved to London to be crowned George I, he forbade Leibniz to accompany him, partly because the philosopher had still not finished even the first volume of the history of the House of Brunswick which had been commissioned 30 years earlier; but also in order to prevent a confrontation with England’s famous polymath Isaac Newton. The widely publicised dispute over whether Newton or Leibniz had discovered calculus was still unresolved. Leibniz had been accused of plagiarism, a charge which hung over him for many years – it was not until the 20th century that scholars felt it was unjustified.